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The US Jewish debate over white Jewish privilege in Israel

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Earlier this week this website suggested that, in the wake of Charlottesville and its aftermath, the Forward’s publication of Jewish Voice for Peace’s Naomi Dann’s piece equating Zionism with racism – albeit with a ringing denunciation two days later by Editor Jane Eisner — was revolutionary — a sign that the monolith of Jewish opinion on Israel was breaking up, finally permitting a true and open debate in the American Jewish tent about whether, in privileging Jews over Palestinians, Israel has become an ethnocracy inconsistent with human dignity and democratic and Jewish values.

This debate, as necessary as it is, has the capacity to tear apart the American Jewish community, as the debate over civil rights and the Vietnam War tore apart the American national fabric two generations ago.  That is a divide from which the United States has yet to recover, so this discussion, and how we handle it, is critical.  But there is no escaping it, because an increasing percentage of American Jews, and particularly the young, find intolerable what they perceive, in the wake of the fear and trauma engendered by the Holocaust, and of the success of the Zionist enterprise and the first modern Jewish state, to be Israel’s abuse of power – privileged Jewish power — over Palestinian Arabs who also have deep roots in the land on which the Jewish state sits.

Dann is one of those young people.  Her argument is that the Zionist project and the Jewish state is built on white Jewish privilege, which deprives Palestinian residents of Israel, and occupied Palestinians in the West Bank, of their equal rights and human dignity.  She is careful to say that American white nationalist leader Richard Spencer’s comparison of white supremacy to Israel is not literally true, because his racist views are abhorrent to the majority of Israeli and American Jews, and the world’s abandonment of Jews to the Nazis was an historic rationale for a Jewish state, which “distinguishes us fundamentally from white nationalists in the U.S.” who “are not facing any kind of discrimination whatsoever.”

But there is, she says, a “kernel of truth” to the observation that there is some resemblance between Spencer’s “white Zionism” and the Jewish Zionist project, not just from the right-wing violence against Palestinians and left-wing Jews, but because as that project has come to be practiced today, the Jewish state is premised on Jewish privilege, attempts to erase and displace Palestinians from Israel and the West Bank, an obsession with demographics and the maintenance of a Jewish majority, the seizure of privately owned Palestinian homes and lands, and the demolition of tens of thousands of Palestinian homes.

And, she suggests, white privilege often piggybacks on Jewish privilege, since not only do Palestinian citizens of Israel face systemic discrimination, but so do Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jews of color, as well as African refugees seeking asylum.  Dann ends her piece with a call for Jews to build coalitions with all those seeking equal rights and dignity to challenge “the institutions that uphold supremacy, together,” recognizing how Jewish freedom from anti-Semitism is bound up in the freedoms of those “who have fewer rights than us.”

Dann’s article was clearly a challenge for Eisner, who acknowledged that publishing it was an effort to reflect “a range of American Jewish opinion,” with lip service to the proposition that “[t]he free flow of ideas is to be cherished.”  But rather than cherish the piece she chose to publish, she started out with the ad hominem attack that Dann was part of that “radical group Jewish Voice for Peace.” Eisner then went on to falsely accuse Dann of “comparing Israel to Nazis,” and of arguing “that Zionism is akin to Nazism,” which Dann was careful to avoid doing.  For good measure, Eisner suggested that anti-Semitism was “at the core” of the argument that Zionism is inherently racist and exclusionary.

Ironically, however, Dann never argued that Zionism is inherently racist and exclusionary.  Her argument is that Zionism, as it has evolved and is practiced in Israel today, is racist and exclusionary.  For that proposition, there is no reasonable dispute.  And Eisner herself does not dispute it.  Indeed, she acknowledges that “[t]here is an undeniable tension between privileging Jews in the State of Israel and the rights of other religious and ethnic groups.”  She admits that “the current government of Benjamin Netanyahu follow[s] policies that discriminate against non-Jews,” and “perpetuat[es] the occupation of Palestinian land and the denial of Palestinian sovereignty.” She describes as “painful” that “such policies are done in the name of Zionism,” and calls them “a perversion of the Zionist ideal” and “something that all Jews must reckon with.”

So here are Dann and Eisner, each reckoning in good faith with the perversion of Jewish and democratic values.  Eisner is, in some respects, Dann’s comrade in arms.  Dann’s piece, properly read and understood, is calling to Eisner to come work with her and “radical” JVP and others to accomplish that reckoning.  Yet Eisner feels herself on the other side of the “Jewish Schism” when in fact they have much in common.

Both also acknowledge deficiencies in American nationalism, which Eisner ideally describes as color-blind, expanding to include all racial and ethnic groups who have come to our shores.  Dann argues that Jews must work in coalition to challenge “both anti-Jewish oppression and systematic anti-Black racism,” and to challenge our “anxiety about demographics and racist and Islamophobic fear of ‘Arabs’” both in the U.S. and Israel.

Eisner, however, appears to agree with that proposition only in the U.S. but not in Israel, and that is the cognitive dissonance with democratic and Jewish values which mars her argument and causes her to lose Dann and more and more American Jews every day.  Indeed, Eisner explicitly defends the enforcement of “social and cultural norms to maintain the hegemony of the dominant class” in Israel, by citing similar norms in Austria, Saudi Arabia and other nations which “have strict religious tests for citizenship and leadership to privilege one group over another,” asking, “Is that racist, too?”

Well, yes, it is.  And therein lies the rub.  Eisner defends Zionism as “an expansive aspiration” asserting that Jews, like all other peoples on earth, deserve the right to govern themselves in their ancestral homeland.”  But Eisner ignores the fact that the Jewish “ancestral homeland” was not empty; it was also the “ancestral homeland” of a lot more Palestinians than Jews, and called Palestine.  In that respect, Jews are not like all other peoples on earth, and their right to govern themselves cannot include the right to govern themselves at the expense of Palestinians and their equal human rights and dignity.

In order to defend this aspirational Zionism, Eisner argues that Israel, and the Jewish people, have a right “to maintain the hegemony of the dominant class” – privileging Jews over Palestinians, at the same time she decries the discrimination and occupation which inevitably has resulted from such hegemony.  Notably, she fails to define the boundaries of such hegemony she finds in accord with Jewish moral and religious values. But this is where her Zionist ideal parts company with the American democratic ideal she earlier described, which specifically proscribes privileging one group over another.  And it is this aspect of Eisner’s Zionist ideal that Dann, the rest of us, might well be justified in calling inherently exclusionary and racist.

In American constitutional law, a statute can be unconstitutional on its face (in every case), or unconstitutional as applied (in the particular case).  But for the victim aggrieved by the application of an unconstitutional statute, it generally does not matter one whit whether the statute is unconstitutional on its face or as applied, if it violates her rights.  Similarly, to the Palestinians ruled by Jewish hegemony, under occupation or facing discrimination inside the Green Line, it matters little whether Zionism is inherently racist and exclusionary, or racist and exclusionary as applied.  We Jews need to eliminate Zionism’s racist and exclusionary elements.  One would hope that Eisner, and all who aspire to expound Jewish values, in America and Israel, would agree.

Until they do, we have a lot of work to do.  But it is a struggle for the heart and soul of the Jewish people, so it must be done, even in the face of painful tribal arrows of betrayal like “radical anti-Semitic and self-hating Jews.”  Ultimately, whether we tear themselves apart will be up to those on the other side of the debate, because Naomi Dann and her ever-increasing band of brothers and sisters are not going away.

Robert Herbst

Robert Herbst is a civil rights lawyer. He was chapter coordinator for Westchester Jewish Voice for Peace from 2014-2017,

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20 Responses

  1. JWalters on August 27, 2017, 6:33 pm

    “Eisner, however, appears to agree with that proposition only in the U.S. but not in Israel, and that is the cognitive dissonance with democratic and Jewish values which mars her argument and causes her to lose Dann and more and more American Jews every day.”

    Cognitive dissonance is a highly studied phenomenon. People exhibiting cognitive dissonance avoid information that conflicts with (is dissonant with) a belief they hold. This avoidance is observably a universal pattern among Zionists. All the highly relevant facts about Palestine and the people of Palestine described in this article are always ignored and ommitted by Zionists. So there is abundant evidence that cognitive dissonance is operating in the minds of Zionists.

    The Zionsts propose a different phenomenon to explain the differing conclusions in the Jewish community. It’s latest version is “auto-anti-Semitism”, a term coined recently by Naftali Bennett.

    The “auto-anti-Semitism” phenomenon, however, has not been scientifically studied, as has cognitive dissonance.

    So we have a case of dueling theories. Fortunately, with modern understanding of scientific methods, it is possible to put these two theories to the test. With properly collected data it could be determined with certainty whether the different views in the Jewish community are due to auto-anti-Semitism or cognitive dissonance.

    Are Jews who disagree with Israel’s policies toward the people of Palestine, like Naomi Dann, suffering from auto-anti-Semitism? Or are Zionist Jews like Jane Eisner suffering from cognitive dissonance? This is a question of science, and can be settled by science.

    • Mooser on August 27, 2017, 7:34 pm

      “This is a question of science, and can be settled by science.”

      But not just any science. It’ll take quantum psychics to figure it out.

      • Citizen on August 27, 2017, 11:08 pm

        Why not just juxtapose the principles of Zionism with those of Humanism?

      • JWalters on August 28, 2017, 7:16 pm


        That too. It seems to me Zionism should be attacked on all legitimate fronts.

    • rosross on August 28, 2017, 10:12 pm

      More to the point, someone who believes they are a superior human being, superior to all others, and a victim to boot in ways which no other humans can ever be, will be unable to face the trauma which comes from admitting that one is simply an ordinary human being, no different to any other, and not a superior and perfect victim.

      Both Zionism and Judaism combine to create such delusion as it manifests in UN Mandated Israel and Occupied Palestine.

  2. Mooser on August 27, 2017, 7:39 pm

    “And it is this aspect of Eisner’s Zionist ideal that Dann, the rest of us, might well be justified in calling inherently exclusionary and racist.”


    ” We Jews need to eliminate Zionism’s racist and exclusionary elements.”

    From ‘inherent’ to “elements” in the space of a few lines. That’s progress.

    • Bont Eastlake on August 28, 2017, 11:42 am

      Zionist itself need to be eliminated.

      • rosross on August 28, 2017, 6:26 pm

        Zionism is fascism, nazism, and any other bigoted ísm’ which humans have invented. Just because it claims to be based in a religion does not make it better, it makes it worse.

        The irony of course is that most of those who founded Zionism were atheists and so not even Jewish. If one believed in conspiracy theories against Judaism, it is almost the perfect plot.

        I however find human beings arrogant, ignorant, stupid, deluded, greedy and dysfunctional enough to create any kind of horror without the slightest plan.

  3. Citizen on August 27, 2017, 11:11 pm

    Where does the fact of trending demography in USA since 1965 fit in Mr. Herbst’s essay comparing white nationalism with Jewish Israeli nationalism?

  4. Elizabeth Block on August 28, 2017, 9:56 am

    Jews also are privileged in that we can criticize Israel when our non-Jewish friends and allies feel they must keep silent. Let’s use our privilege.

    • rosross on August 28, 2017, 6:24 pm

      More than criticise, other Jews should separate themselves completely from the Zionist State and reject all for which it stands. Only by rejection might, just might, some Jewish Israelis come to their senses.

      More to the point, for their own futures, other Jews should clearly separate themselves from Israel’s racist atrocities, just as Muslims must separate themselves from the violence done by their radicals.

      Those who do not clearly reject Israel will understandably be considered to support it, no matter how much they might criticise.

  5. jewishwiccancatholicworker on August 28, 2017, 11:18 am

    JWalters proposes studying the existence of “auto-anti-semitism” in a seemingly neutral way, but very dangerously, giving it more credence than it deserves.

    His comment made me immediately think about Donald Trump’s voter fraud commission. Its existence it designed to stifle voting rights, not study anything and tries to make it seem like something exists that doesn’t really.

    Proposing to study what Bennett made up would give it way more veracity than it deserves and would be a misuse of the scientific process.

    • JWalters on August 28, 2017, 7:13 pm

      I appreciate your concern. But I’m confident that the auto-anti-Semitism theory, specifically as applied to Jewish critics of Israel, would be blasted to shreds by a properly done study.

      The auto-anti-Semitism theory (aka “self hating Jew” theory) is widely used by Zionists to explain the schism in the Jewish community. The usual non-Zionist response is to scoff at it, because it’s obvious to non-Zionists that people like Phil Weiss have a lot of self-respect. That is what enables them to resist the powerful cultural pressures from Zionists.

      Rebutting the self-hating Jew theory with a specific alternative theory, one that is backed up by extensive scientific evidence, seems to me a much stronger response than scoffing. It’s especially strong because the evidence is overwhelming that Zionists clearly and consistently exhibit cognitive dissonance. And it would become even stronger when evidence showed that the auto-anti-Semitism theory is as goofy as its name sounds.

      • echinococcus on August 28, 2017, 8:18 pm

        No need for any theories. Any one confirmed Zionist misdeed is enough to explain it.
        Otherwise, discussing such nonsense with Zionist varmint only lends it legitimacy.

      • Mooser on August 28, 2017, 9:00 pm

        “the auto-anti-Semitism theory is as goofy as its name sounds.”

        Would that it were so! But the condition has been well-explicated. Here is an expert writing in this very blog:

        “Self-hatred is a disease. It is a sad disease borne of many generations of persecution, but it is a disease. And …… (insert name here) is afflicted with it, as many Jews have been in the past. And it is usually the self-haters who cause the worst damage to the Jewish community, precisely because of how small it is.”

      • JWalters on August 29, 2017, 7:00 pm


        I have to disagree with you on this one.

        A single Zionist misdeed is not enough to settle the argument. Single misdeeds can be reasonably claimed to exist on both sides.

        As for dignifying an argument by responding to it, if we never responded to bad arguments with are left with force as our only recourse. I agree there are times when it’s tactically best to ignore a point. For example, when it’s a completely unsubstantiated personal insult.

        But in a public debate about an important issue, it seems to me a mistake to leave a bogus attack unanswered. It can potentially sway vacillating on-lookers. Those vacillators could be swayed instead by a focused, devastating counter argument. That bogus argument can be driven from the battlefield.

        And just to clarify, I’m not saying studies should be done on the auto-anti-Semitic theory. The main point about the cognitive dissonance factor is that it can be brought up whenever Zionists bring up the self-hating Jew factor. For example,

        Z: You’re a self-hating Jew!

        A: I am not, but you’re definitely suffering from cognitive dissonance. That’s why you never even discuss the Palestinian side of the story. And that’s why your conclusions are invalid.

        Z: Oh yeah, prove it!

        A: There’s a ton of scientific research proving cognitive dissonance, and you’re a classic case. But there’s NO evidence that Jewish critics of Israel are anti-Semitic or self-hating. You lose.

      • Mooser on August 30, 2017, 12:21 pm

        ” But there’s NO evidence that Jewish critics of Israel are anti-Semitic or self-hating.”

        So, if you just disposed of the entire topic (and very well, too!) in one comment, why should we pay a bunch of scientists to fool around with mice and mazes?

        I mean, that whole “self-hatred” concept is something which wouldn’t scare or influence anybody but children!

  6. Misterioso on August 28, 2017, 3:55 pm

    Israel Pulse, August 25/17

    “Israel defends Palestinian land theft in court”
    REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

    “Even after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said that the Regularization law is unlawful as it steals private Palestinian lands, Israel continues to defend it in court.”

  7. rosross on August 28, 2017, 6:21 pm

    Many religions are racist in that they exclude non-members. In fact what made Christianity exceptional is the premise that all should be helped, regardless of their religion. For many of course this meant attempts to convert, but Christianity never, like Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and others, refused to help the needy because they were not a follower.

    Where Zionist Judaism is more problematic is that Zionism is racism based on culture and it thinks race, but of course, Jews are no more a race than are Christians, and the bigotry becomes more entrenched.

    Israeli Jews in general believe they are superior human beings to all non-Jews, and some consider themselves superior to other Jews, but for the indigenous Palestinians, the label of subhuman must be applied if Israeli Jews are to continue to delude themselves in their bigotry.

    Israel is a nation rotted from within, but any nation based on racist bigotry, whether or race or religion, will so rot.

  8. RoHa on August 29, 2017, 2:12 am

    “Jews, like all other peoples on earth, deserve the right to govern themselves in their ancestral homeland.”

    Where do they get these ideas from?

    The most we can say is that people (not “peoples”) have the moral right to take part in governing the land where they have citizenship and are resident.

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